Unconventional wisdom Unconventional wisdom BY BERNARD HARRIS, Staff Writer
Last weekend, young fans of Japanese animation and science fiction filled the lobby of the Lancaster County Convention Center, taking pictures of each other's elaborate costumes.
A week before, thousands of quilters relaxed in the lobby between sessions of the annual American Quilters Society show.
Next weekend, it will be farmers and agri-business people attending a national dairy calf and heifer conference.
Those events -- along with competitions of volleyball players, gymnasts and barber shop singers -- were not foreseen when the convention center was being debated more than a decade ago.
The downtown Lancaster center was intended to be a versatile space, but its primary purpose would be to host conferences of trade shows, regional business groups and state associations based in nearby Harrisburg.
That focus differed from that of other regional venues, which double as expo halls and sports stadiums.
But Lancaster's center opened in the worst economic downturn in nearly a century. That forced Josh Nowak to get creative.
Nowak, 39, is director of sales and marketing for the center and the attached Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square hotel. He leads a staff of seven who market and coordinate planning of events in both facilities.
Soon after opening in June 2009, Nowak said they saw the potential to leverage Lancaster County's religious heritage and family-centered attractions to appeal to religious groups.
Then they began landing "gate shows," such as regional home-improvement shows, which can draw visitors from as far as Philadelphia and Baltimore.
"We're a good drive-in market," Nowak said.
He told his staff to be creative and open-minded to attracting events to the new facility. He told them to look well beyond the association and corporate meetings.
"We're in a different world than we were 15 years ago," Nowak said.
Even so, one salesperson still is assigned to go after state associations. Another goes after corporate business. A third concentrates on religious, ethnic and fraternal groups.
The sales staff also looks at events being held at other venues outside Lancaster for groups that could be lured here. They make hundreds and hundreds of calls each month, he said.
Nowak said they even study events being held at larger metropolitan facilities, because those groups, while too big for Lancaster, often have smaller regional meetings that could come here.
The efforts have proven successful. There have been events each weekend in the first three months of this year.
During that time, 45,000 people attended just the largest events in the exhibition hall. In the second quarter, that number is expected to be more than 40,000, he said.
Beyond simply filling the hall, Nowak and his staff have another mission. Their charge, and the charge of the facility, is to bring events to Lancaster that will benefit the broader community.
They must try to attract large events in which conventioneers will stay in county hotels, eat in county restaurants and shop in county stores beyond downtown Lancaster. Quilters, for example, booked 4,000 hotel room nights. Their economic impact was estimated to be about $7.25 million.
Nowak also points to the Headliners Dance Competition, which will be coming to Lancaster in late June. That event, previously held in New England, will bring between 1,000 and 1,500 people here for each of eight days.
That economic impact was the reasoning behind building the center and the reason it's supported by a countywide hotel room tax.
Rental revenue helps pay the center's operating costs, but it is the 3.9 percent tax that pays for the $64 million in construction debt. The recession-driven downturn in projected tax revenue has hurt the center's ability to make debt payments and left officials searching for ways to keep the facility solvent.
News reports that center finances were in jeopardy have hurt Nowak's ability to attract events, he said.
Part of his sales job is convincing people "that we're here to stay," he said.
Still, bookings are ahead of initial projections, and center revenue is nearly $73,000 ahead after the first two months of this year.
"That translates very well to minimize that scheduled loss," Nowak said, noting that the center was always expected to lose money. That loss was to be more than offset by the broader community good of the center.
Meanwhile, as part of a center funding plan, downtown business leaders are proposing that there be dedicated funding for center marketing. The goal would be to increase the number of top-tier events in Freedom Hall from six or seven per year to 20.
Careful not to endorse any specific funding plan, Nowak said he believes there is opportunity for more events at the center.
"I believe a lot of people in our community are starting to embrace this as the asset it is and the asset it can be," he said.
"We're starting to grow, but I think people are beginning to realize that this facility, this destination, is capable of handling increased business."
A Conshohocken native, Nowak came to Lancaster in July 2007 after working for hotels in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. When he arrived, the center was no more than the steel-supported facade of the former Watt & Shand department store and a hole in the ground.
Now a Mountville resident, he's seen the facility grow and develop, and he plans to stick around for more.
"There is still work to be done on this project, and I still have the same level of enthusiasm that I did when I arrived," Nowak said.
nCounty Convention Center's marketing director brings in groups not originally seen as customers.